Bee Forage and Permaculture Swales

In 2016 I started on a project to add swales to my property to hold some water when it rains and give it time to soak in rather than running off. On the downhill side of the swales I planted Aronia berries where they can take advantage of the extra moisture. Above the swales I planted yellow sweet clover and white sweet clover so the nitrogen they add to the soil will work its way down the hill, into the swales and to the roots of the Aronia berry bushes. In the wetter side of the swales I planted a pollinator habitat seed mix designed for wet areas and in between the Aronia berry bushes and the downhill side of the swales I planted normal pollinator habitat seed mix. The pollinator seed mix and the sweet clover both offer nectar and pollen for my honeybees and the native pollinators in the area. 

One of the biggest permaculture principles is stacking functions.  The plantings 1) hold the soil in place, 2) keep the weeds down, 3) provide food for my bees and native pollinators, 4) add nitrogen to the soil in the case of the clovers, 5) provide seeds for birds and other wildlife and 6) look attractive.  This is in addition to the Aronia berries and wildflowers I can harvest for personal use or for sale.

The most labor-intensive part of this project was making the swales.  After marking the location on contour with an “A” frame level, the swales were created with a road grader blade on the 3 point of a tractor.  The blade is angled steeply to one side so that it digs the soil out on the uphill side and dumps it out on the downhill side.  This goes a little beyond what the blade was designed for but if you make multiple passes and remove a little soil each time it works really well.  

Making the swales with a tractor:

Making the swales with a tractor:

The first and second year required quit a bit of time cutting the weeds down with a weed wacker. I also mowed the wildflower patches, about 6 inches high, Three times the first year and twice the second year.

This is three years after planting the swales:

Beginning Beekeeping Series: Session 0

It takes over 750 bees to make one pound of honey.

The bees need to visit nearly 2 million flowers to fill a 1 pound jar of honey.

The circle of life and honeybees

Before beekeepers came around, honeybees did fine all by themselves.  They lived in hollow trees and they spread clear across the country all on their own.  I think it is best to start by talking about how bees survive on their own, out in the wild, and not in those neat little white boxes we beekeepers put them in.  So think about a colony of bees living out in a hollow tree in the forest. “Colony” is the name we give to a functioning, self sustaining group of honey bees. A colony of bees has one queen, a few thousand drones (male bees) and several thousand worker bees (female bees).  They will build honeycomb out of wax that they secrete from glands on their abdomen. They attach the comb to the inside of the tree, starting on the top and the sides of the tree and building it all of the way down and through the hollow cavity. They will bring in pollen and nectar from the flowers in the area all around the tree, and they will store the pollen in those wax combs they built, and they will turn the nectar into honey and fill the combs with honey.  They will continue to do this until the entire space inside the tree is completely full and they run out of room.  

If they run out of room in the fall that means they have all the honey that they should need to get through the winter.  They will just hunker down all winter and eat honey to stay warm and wait for spring to start the whole process all over again.

If they run out of room in the early summer this means they had a really good year!  And it means there is plenty of summer left and they could use that time making more honey if they had space to put it.  It also means that even though it is early summer,  the colony should have enough honey stored to make it through the coming winter.  So this is the point in time that a colony of honeybees will essentially split in two and become two colonies.

Swarming is reproduction

This ‘out of room’ situation is the beginning of the swarm process.  Swarming is the honeybee colonies way of reproducing. When the bees get to this point early in the summer they will raise a new queen.  This new queen and half of the bees will get to stay in the hollow tree with all of the honey that is stored. This new queen and her half of the bees have it pretty good with a “turn key” house that is fully furnished with comb and the pantry is fully stocked with honey.  The old queen and the other half of the bees will all fly out of the tree together and go out to find a new home. They have a challenge ahead of them. First they will all cluster together on a tree branch in a big ball like a basketball or volleyball. And the old queen will be in the center of the ball for protection.  Then scout bees will start looking for a new home, a new hollow tree or something they can all move into. When they find a place to move into, the whole group will fly there and go inside. They will start building comb right away. All of the bees filled up on honey before they left their old home and if it did not take too long to find this new home they will still have honey left to store in this new comb.  But it is not enough honey to last more than a few days. They will have to find more nectar and pollen from the flowers in the area. They will need to make honey and they will have to build more comb to store it all in. They will have to work all the way through fall to build enough comb and make enough honey to get them through the coming winter. If the swarm is successful and survives the winter, then next spring there will be two colonies of bees in the forest where there had been just one.  If next year is good for both colonies they might both swarm and then there will be four colonies in the forest where there were only two. You can see that over the years honeybees can really spread if conditions are good. Honey bees are not native to the United States. People brought them over when this country was first settled and the bees spread faster than the settlers did. These days the bees are facing a lack of forage and pest pressures and they don’t spread too much on their own now. 

So that we can harvest honey, and to make inspecting a colony of bees possible, beekeepers put the bees in little white boxes called a hive.  These hive boxes have frames in them that can be removed and the bees build their comb within these removable frames. We can remove the frames and look at the bees and the comb and honey.  Removable frames have made it possible to observe and learn many of the things that we know about honeybees. 

Typical year in a beehive 

Whether they are in a hollow tree out in the forest or in a hive, there is an incredible amount of change going on in a beehive throughout the year.  In the summer months the bees are working really hard. The field bees are flying out to get nectar and pollen and bringing it back to the hive almost anytime the sun is shining.  Usually they work within two miles of their hive, but they can go as far as six miles to find flowers if they have to. They actually work so hard that they wear their wings down and burn themselves out and die in 4 to 6 weeks.  In the fall things slow down and the bees live a little longer. Those bees that get to stay in the hive and eat honey to stay warm all winter will live the whole winter and still be alive come spring. But the total population in the hive drops quite a bit in the fall and some of the bees die in the winter too.  The hive seems to find a balance between bees and honey so that there are not so many bees to feed in the winter that they run out of stored honey.  


When spring comes the hive is at its lowest population of the year.  And as those bees that lived the whole winter start to fly out and bring pollen and nectar in they start to work hard and they will start to die off after 4 to 6 weeks.  To replace the bees that are dying, as soon as the weather warms up enough in the spring the queen starts to lay eggs. All bees start out as a tiny little egg that is about the size of a grain of salt.  The queen will only lay as many eggs as the bees can keep warm when it cools off at night. Each time the queen lays an egg she can choose to lay a fertilized egg or an unfertilized egg. Fertilized eggs will develop into female worker bee.  It will take twenty one days (3 weeks) for each new worker bee to go from egg to larva to pupa and finally emerger out of their cell. Unfertilized eggs will develop into male drone bees and they take 24 days to emerge. Honeybees raise their young in comb that is the same shape as the honey comb you are probably familiar with.  As it gets warmer and as the population of the hive grows the queen will lay more and more eggs and can eventually lay up to 2,000 eggs per day.  

So if most bees are living 4 to 6 weeks,  and it takes 3 weeks to raise new bees, then each generation can live just long enough to raise one or two more generations.  The population increase starts slow at first but will eventually snowball and a typical hive managed by a beekeeper can reach 60,000 bees or more by early summer.


When things are timed just right, this population peak happens about the same time the resources available to make honey also peak.  You may think that there are always plants blooming and the bees should have a constant supply of resources. While there is usually something blooming that the bees can work, the amount of necare available fluctuates and  is usually only enough to build the hive up slowly or just maintain the hive. Then suddenly the amount of nectar available jumps up and peaks in what we call a nectar flow. When this happens there is more nectar available than what the bees have time to bring in.  If the hive population peaks before or during this nectar flow the colony can make a very large crop of honey. When conditions are right a hive of honeybees can make 5 pounds of honey in one day. The vast majority of the honey any hive will make all year comes from nectar collected during this flow.  In our area the flow starts around the second week of June and ends some time in July. That is a short 4 to 6 week period in which the bees make the majority of the years honey crop!  

The most likely time for a hive to send out a swarm is during the nectar flow or shortly after the nectar flow.  Remember, swarming happens when the colony has stored enough honey that they are prepared for winter, are out of space to store more honey and out of space for the queen to lay eggs in. And there must also be enough time left before fall so the swarm can make plenty of honey for winter stores. 


If the hive does not swarm then they will slow down a bit and only bring in necar when there is space for it.  Usually by the middle of August the nectar flow will reduce down to a point where the colony is actually eating more honey than they are making.  This opens up some space for the queen to lay eggs again and the colony will raise some new bees and start to balance things out so they have the right amount of honey and bees to get through the winter. 


In the winter the bees stay inside the hive and can only go outside and fly if it is above 50 degrees and sunny.  To stay warm they bunch together in a ball with the outside made up of tightly packed bees. We call this the winter cluster.  They will expand and contract this ball depending on how cold it is outside. They vibrate their wing muscles to generate heat and eat honey to give them energy to continue to do this all winter long.  When necessary they can generate enough heat to keep the center of the cluster at 96 degrees. Throughout the winter each bee is totally dependant on all the other bees to stay warm. If the number of bees is to few this winter cluster may not be able to stay warm enough to survive the cold.  If the number of bees is too many they may eat all of the honey before spring. There is no food source available to them other than the honey they stored last summer. So if they run out of honey before spring, then all of the bees will freeze and die.  


Spring again

It is difficult for the bees to survive until the first spring flowers provide an opportunity to bring in more food.  Some of the earliest sources of pollen and nectar that honeybees can use in the spring are Maple trees and Dandelions.  So don’t treat your lawns for dandelions. You can tell your neighbors you are saving the bees!  

That covers the life cycle and reproductive cycle of the honeybee without going into too much detail.  Honeybees are a fascinating subject that just gets more and more interesting the more you learn about them!

Queen Excluders


Why do we use queen excluders?  To keep the queen out of the honey suppers in order to keep brood out of the honey frames.


When do we put the queen excluder on?  When we add the honey supers.


Does this mean anytime we have any honey supers on we keep the queen excluder on?  What about if we leave one medium supper on the hive for overwintering? Should we leave the queen excluder on?  What is going to happen in the winter as he cluster of bees move up the brood boxes and reach the queen excluder and the medium supper?  The cluster will keep moving up, but the queen will not be able to get through the excluder.  The worker bees won’t know this and they will keep moving up and the queen will be stranded.  With no other bees around her, or few bees around her she is going to freeze and die.  


The WHY we use queen excluders is to keep the queen confined in a certain area.  We use queen excluders WHEN we want to keep the queen from moving up into the upper boxes.  If you forget the why or the when and leave the excluder on in the winter you just created a situation that will kill the queen and therefore the whole hive.  


The WHERE with queen excluders is; maybe down south you can leave them on all year.  Maybe it never gets cold enough that the bees cluster and have to move into the upper boxes in Texas or Florida or California.

Varroa Mite Testing

Alcohol wash Varroa mite count.

This year I finally got serious about finding out what my mite count is for each hive.  By now I am well aware that you can not tell how bad your mites are just by looking at your bees.  By the time you notice mites on the bees, or you start finding deformed wing virus, your mite count will be really high.  So I put this test kit together mostly with items you can buy at Walmart.  There is a plastic tub, a bottle of rubbing alcohol, a wide mouth mason jar and a styrofoam bowl.  The mesh is just eighth inch hardware cloth that I cut to fit inside the jar canning ring.

I used a marker to mark the Mason jar at the 1/2 cup mark.  1/2 cup of bees is roughly 300 bees and is what you will usually see recommended as a sampling size.  You can also add a strainer fine enough to strain out the mites and you can reuse the alcohol a few times.


So here is my step by step guide how to test for Varroa mites.


The first step is to find a frame or brood that has at least 50% open brood.  Some times of year you may not be able to find that much open brood so just try to get close.  Make sure the queen is not on the frame!  This is really important.  The bees you will use to get a mite count in the alcohol wash method will be killed.  You don’t want to accidentally kill the queen.  If you are unsure if the queen is on the frame or not, then you may want to look through the other frames until you do find the queen.  Once you find her, make sure to use a frame the queen is not on.



I don’t like dragging the jar down the frame to knock bees into the jar.  I prefer to knock the frame on the bottom of the plastic tub, knocking all the bees into the tub.


Then it is easy to knock the bees into the corner of the tub and pour them into the jar.


Knock the jar down to pack the bees into the bottom and see if they come up to your 1/2 cup mark.  There is no sense using more than the 1/2 cup so check it a few times as you poor bees in.


Put the screened lid on and cover the bees with alcohol.  A little more than enough to cover them.  You want to be able to swirl them around and wash the mites off.

Swirl the bees and alcohol for about 30 seconds.


Then poor the alcohol into the white bowl and shake vigorously for about 10 seconds to dislodge all the mites and shake them into the bowl.  As you learn to do this it is a good idea to cover the bees with alcohol a second time and repeat the swirling and shaking process to see if you missed any.  If you did, then you probably didn’t swirl or shake long enough or hard enough.


The white bowl helps you to see the brownish red little mites.  They can be kind of hard to tell from some of the other debris, but you get the hang of it pretty quick.  This hive had 6 total mites (only 4 are visible in the close up photo).  The sample of bees should have been 300 bees so 6 mites translates to a 2% infestation (6 / 300 = .02 or 2%).  Next you have to decide what threshold you are going to use.  Do you put Varroa mite treatments in any hive over 2%.  Or any hive over 4%.  Or maybe even anything over 1%.  That one you will have to decide on your own.


I think it is important that you don’t just blindly treat all your hives.  I think it is important to find out your mite counts and then only treat the hives that really need the help.  The more often we beekeepers use the current mite treatments the sooner the mites will build up resistance to those treatments.


My mite counts for August 31, 2017


1  2017 NUC #1 from          2 mites


2  2017 swarm from Team Ford                                  1 mite


3  2016 Carniolan package (overwintered)             6 mites


4  2017 split from 2016 Carniolan package           30 mites


5   2017 NUC #2 from         2 mites


6  2017 swarm from Homer NE                                   1 mite


7  2017 NUC from Cecelia (Rosie) Patterson          1 mite


8  2017 swarm in a bait hive                                       0 mites


9  2017 cutout from Dakota City NE                        6 mites


10 2017 split from 2016 Carniolan package          4 mites


11 2016 Carniolan package

(overwintered and split in spring 2017)          50+ mites



Treated the two worst hives with Apigaurd on September 8th.

I will add the second dose in two weeks.  Hopefully I can do a mite count after the treatment and let you know how well the treatments worked.





Stay open to possibilities, or you never know what you will miss.

Last Tuesday I went the the Siouxland Beekeepers meeting.  Something happened that made me realize, and not for the first time, that you have to always be open, otherwise you never know what you may miss out on.  I was sitting and talking with some beekeepers that I had not met before.  We were talking about pollinator seed mix and how to maintain the plot once the seed has been planted.  I was listening, and I was participating a little.  But I figured I already knew what was important regarding this topic because I had planted my own pollinator seed plot last fall and I had talked to the experts beforehand, therefore I knew what I needed to do.  But luckily I was still engaged in the conversation because one of the other beekeepers said he had a weed called Marestail in his plot and he was having to deal with it.  And I thought to myself “Marestail, that sounds like a name that could apply to the plant I see in my pollinator plot that I can’t identify.  I have been wondering if it is a weed or a wildflower.”  One week ago I had been in my pollinator plot wondering what this plant was and I took some pictures of it.  So I showed the other beekeeper the photos and he said “Yep, that’s Marestail.  That is going to become one of our toughest weeds to control”

Group of Marestail.


So I looked it up on the internet and yes, Marestail, or Horseweed, is a potential problem.  It sounds like if you keep it mowed and keep it from going to seed you can get it under control.  Luckily for me I was able to mow the areas where my Marestail is.  If I keep mowing it every time the Marestail is getting ready to go to seed I should be able to control it.


Marestail about to bloom.














So what if I had not gone to that bee meeting?  When I took the photos I had no idea when I would run into someone to ask what the plant may be.  If I had not gone to the meeting  maybe I would not have identified that weed.  The area most of my Marestail is growing is with the clover that I planted, and I was not planning on mowing that clover.  Maybe it would have gone to seed before I identified it as a weed!  Then I would have hundreds of times more weeds next year!  It is impossible to calculate the potential value to me of that one little statement, “Well I have some Marestail in mine that I am having to deal with”.  I know we all get busy and we have to prioritize, but the next time you are thinking about skipping something, remember to think about what you could miss out on.  You never know.  And always remember to stay alert and engaged, or you may still miss out, even when you do go.





How are your bees? July 2017

Wow June was a busy month for me and the bees.  The big nectar flow started the second or third week of June.  I put some honey suppers on early.  Things never really took off though.  It was unseasonably hot and we were 2 or 3 inches behind on rainfall.  I think that slowed the flow.  We finally got some rain and I hope we will see some nectar coming in full boar now.  The sweat clover around here is the main nectar provider.  The yellow sweat clover is finishing up but the white sweat clover has just started to bloom.  I am hopping it will provide some honey.


I got two swarm calls in June and I caught both swarms.  I had a swarm move into one of my bait hives and I did a cutout in Dakota City.  I ordered some local NUCs and they were delayed due to cold weather so I just got the four of them in place by July 4th.  All in all eight new hives.  That is a lot of increase in one month!  I need a break.


I will keep a close eye on all the new hives and make sure every hive has room to make some honey with what is left of the summer.

How are your bees? June 2017.

New queens from splitting a hive.


Back in the first part of May one of my hives started getting ready to swarm. When I discovered this, they had already started raising queens in special queen cells. Once the bees start this process it is very hard to get them to stop and you usually end up loosing half the bees to a swarm if you are unsuccessful trying to them. Rather than fighting them, I decided to split the hive into three hives.  I made sure each had a queen cell or two so they could finish raising a queen. I also started two tiny hives with queen cells as backups in case the others fail to raise a queen successfully. June 3rd I got a chance to look at the new splits and I found four of the five have laying queens. I am pretty happy with those results. This is a photo of one of the new queens.

The spring fruit tree bloom was fairly strong this spring and some of my hives built up fast.  It was the first week of May when I discovered one of my hives was filling the open cells of the brood nest with nectar.  The more they do this the fewer places the queen has to lay.  Eventually they will fill the whole brood nest with nectar, the queen cant lay anywhere. The bees will build swarm cells and the queen will lay in those.  About the time the queen cells get capped the original queen and about half the bees will fly away in a swarm.  To stay ahead of this you need to make sure they have room in the brood nest when the spring fruit trees stop blooming.  If you find the bees are just starting to fill the brood nest with nectar you can add some empty frames or move some empty frames into the broods nest from other areas.  If they already have more than half of the brood nest filled with nectar then make sure two frames you add to the brood nest are un-drawn foundation.  The bees will start to draw this out and before it is drawn very deep the queen will lay eggs in it.  She can lay in partially drawn cells that they could not put nectar in.  This can head off the swarm impulse.



How are your bees? June 2017


Time to get the honey suppers on, if they are not already!

The main nectar flow starts the second or third week of June around here.  I think it is already started.  I have one honey supper on each hive that is not a new split.  I plan to add more in a few days.  The main nectar flow does not last long, some times only two weeks.  I want to make sure the bees do not run out of room to store that nectar and turn it onto honey.